How Should Athletes Handle the Press? I Have One Word for You – Cliches!

From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964
From The Games of the XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964

As I am a former journalist, I know that if you keep asking questions, in different ways, and you’re patient, your victim may very well cough up something interesting or important or both. Athletes who aren’t used to the interview may find out very quickly that they should probably avoid reporters at all costs, for their own good.

800 and 1,500 meter champion, Peter Snell, addressed this issue in his book “No Bugles No Drums“. Snell describes a possible encounter between an unwary athlete and a reporter:

Under the great conditions of stress and emotion produced by the Games atmosphere, it’s very easy for an athlete to say things he wouldn’t say in normal circumstances. It’s not difficult to imagine a runner just finishing a particularly fine trial. He’s elated by the time but, before he’s had time to evaluate it properly a pressman bowls up:

“Hullo, there. Google from the London Explode. Just a few questions.”
“Why, yeah, sure,” jogging around, jumping out of his skin.
“How’s your training programme coming along?”
“Terrific.” Still jumping. “Just ran a terrific quarter…/”
“That so?” that’s great. How do you feel you’re going to run next Tuesday?”
Still jumping. “I’ll lick the pants off that lot the way I’m feeling.”
“What’re your plans for the race? Tactics, I mean?”
“Well, after this trial, nothing scares me. I was going to hold a sprint as long as possible but I figure if it’s got to be the last lap sprint I’ll be In it.”
“You mean, you’ll sprint from the bell?”
“Oh, I guess I’ll go from about 300 yards.”
“Who’d you pick is going to be the hardest to beat?”
“Heck, I don’t even care who else is running.”

secret olympianSnell’s point? “You can be caught with your pants down in a moment of elation – or depression.”

And as described in the book, Secret Olympian: The Inside Story of the Olympic Experience, by Anon, you also need to aware of how your words can be misinterpreted. In this case, one can turn an innocent question into an answer of ungratefulness.

One of the first trials of the recently christened Olympian-to-be is the local newspaper interview. The journalist is buzzing, looking forward to an uplifting story of the local boy or girl made good.

The obligatory first question, ‘How long have you dreamed of being an Olympian?’

The automatic response, “Since I was a kid’ or ‘Since I can remember.’

Whilst such a response may make a nice sound bit and an uplifting ‘Dream comes true for local boy’ page two lead, in the main it’s not actually true. I didn’t dream about going to the Olympics and neither did most of my compatriots. We answer yes to the leading question from journalists because it seems expected and it sounds ungrateful not to have dreamt of going.

The best advice you can give an inexperienced athlete prior to engaging a reporter? Know your cliches. Watch this clip from the movie, Bull Durham, as Crash Davis teaches the rookie that “cliches are your friend.”